ViewFinder 703, The Sacramento Railyards

Sacramento is the quintessential railroad town. On this edition of View Finder, you’ll see why that prized heritage is so richly deserved.

The whole impact of the railyards on the city is more than significant. It’s incredible.

The shops were this huge economic driver along with the railroad itself.

The role they played in our history is incalculable.

Before the 1860’s, California was extremely isolated because you couldn’t travel east to west easily.  You had to go around.  By boat it would take three weeks, over land, it took months. A man called Asa Whitney was the first to champion the idea of a central route, but it Theodore Judah who would actually put the transcontinental railroad on the map.

Lane Fiddler:  Judah was an engineer that mapped out the route of how it would cross over the Sierras.

Kyle Wyatt:  Judah was a fanatic really. He was driven. He had this vision of what the transcontinental railroad would be. He had this vision of how it would unfold and he had this vision of the role he would play in that.  The Sierra was viewed as this barrier that was impossible to get across.  The route that Judah was able to locate actually showed a way that it could be done.

From his years as chief engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, Judah knew his biggest challenge wasn’t as much the route as it was the resources.  He needed investors.

Paul Hammond:  Ultimately, the transcontinental railroad was funded by four Sacramento businessmen.

Alan Swanson:  The Big 4 was Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charlie Crocker and Governor Stanford.

Kyle Wyatt:  Leland Stanford’s the front man, he’s the public face of the railroad. He was elected governor of California in 1861, and he was the president of the railroad while he was governor. Huntington was the one, the financier; he was the one who spent most of his time on the east coast working the financial markets and the political markets. Mark Hopkins was the financial person who minds the books, minds the store, keeps everything steady and stable. Charles Crocker, in many ways he’s the doer, he’s the hands on front man, They pick him to head up the construction of the railroad and in fact he’s off the board for a time while he’s a contractor. There’s certain levels of conflict of interest you can have and certain levels that you can’t have. That was one that you couldn’t have.

Each of the Big Four—or “The Associates” as they preferred to be called--put in 15 hundred dollars and formed what would be called the Central Pacific Railroad.

But in order to build a railroad, you have to have a place to build trains. 

And wheels and gears and seats and cabinets and all the other things that go into making and keeping a train functional.  That place was the Sacramento Shops.

Bill Burg:  One of the descriptions that’s used of the shops is cathedrals of labor. A lot of the buildings were built before internal electric lights and so they have large tall windows to allow light to come in naturally through the roofs and so the open spaces that you see are really dramatic.

Just over a decade earlier, the Gold Rush had enticed throngs of diverse people to come west.  For those whose dreams didn’t pan out, the railyards offered good jobs at decent wages.

Jim Henley:  The size of the shop draws very talented people to come here and work, not only is it a large labor force, it draws some really talented people. For example the superintendent of the shops for a long time was a guy named AJ Stevens.”

Paul Hammond:  AJ Stevens was really the master mechanic of the Central Pacific Railroad who masterminded how the shops would not just be built but how they would expand, and he himself was an inventor so he had many patents under his own name.”

Now Stevens was a demanding boss.  He expected a hard days work from his men and he got it. But in return, he gave them autonomy-- encouraging them to make the shops reliable, self-sufficient and innovative.

Bill Burg:  In addition to steam locomotives, there were every other sort of car being built at the shops from passenger cars, freight cars, box cars and most of what was called head end equipment things like express brake cars, railway post office cars, every sort of equipment that you’d find on the railroad was built there.

Jim Henley:  So there’s a “we can do this, we can make this” attitude that evolves right from the beginning in the shops.

Some of technological advances being developed or perfected at the shops would have a huge economic impact throughout California.

Jim Henley:  The railroad couldn’t make money simply hauling gold from California back east; you can do that in one train. The thing they settled on was agriculture and how do you get agricultural product from Sacramento to New York? Refrigeration. So a whole industry evolves out of refrigeration and the railroads drives that to a very high degree of technical sophistication.

The Sacramento Shops were the only facility west of the Mississippi to build locomotives from the ground up.

Paul Hammond:  Altoona was the central shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad, one of the standard bearers of American railroading. Southern Pacific in its own right became one of those standard bearers as well. Sacramento is held up to a place in the east in the 1880s as being able to do everything.

Of course not all the trains the Sacramento Shops turned out were—shall we say-- successes?  One in particular—El Gobernador was Central Pacific’s attempt to build the world’s largest locomotive in 1883. It wound up spending more time in the shops than on the rails.

Bill Burg:  It was an ambitious project, it was an example of the sort of Stevens’s innovation that went beyond the bounds of what was technically possible at the time but later on, a locomotive like El Gobernador would be considered a fairly small locomotive.

The Sacramento Shops actually turned out very few hangar queens, probably why these shops were considered some of the finest in the railroad industry. But then again, you expect great things from the largest industrial complex this side of Chicago.  Now that’s the history of the shops, but coming up on ViewFinder, we unlock the doors for the first time since 1999 to give you a rare glimpse inside.  But first, check out the actual building of the transcontinental railroad.

Bill Burg:  This was an amazing expedition, it was dramatic in scope and unparalleled in vision and it turned into an everyday mundane shipment of goods and people that built California.

Jim Henley:  This is in the organizing era of labor in this country.

In the early 1860’s when the central pacific railroad was first incorporated, all of the Big 4 were well-connected Republicans.  One of their biggest allies? Newly elected president--Abraham Lincoln.

Kyle Wyatt:  The Republican Party had always had as one of their planks was building the transcontinental railroad with land grants so the election of Lincoln is a key element in that. And so there is actual personal communications going on between Lincoln and the associates, particularly Stanford.

Kyle Wyatt:  Ground was broken for the entire transcontinental railroad; the first ground broken was here in Sacramento at the foot of K Street and Front Street. The first rails are laid in the fall of 1863 again the very first rails here in Sacramento at the foot of I Street at Front Street.”

Central Pacific builds towards the east while Union Pacific builds towards the west. In 1869, a track crew lays 10 miles of track in one day—an inconceivable feat at the time and that record believe it or not- still stands today.

Two weeks later—nearly 6 years after breaking ground, the Central Pacific tracks and the Union Pacific tracks meet in Promontory, Utah.  Leland Stanford hammers in the final ceremonial golden spike.

Bill Burg:  If the building of the transcontinental railroad can be compared to the moon landing and the golden spike site can be compared to Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, then Cape Canaveral was right there in the railyards. That was the launch site.

Undeniably, the railyards shaped most aspects of the growing Sacramento area.

Jim Henley:  Those shops become incubators for so many things in the community. New houses, new subdivisions, new demands on transportation, culture, all kinds of things come from that.

…including the way Sacramentans spent their hard earned wages.  Shopping meccas began springing up —sort of the downtown plaza’s of yesteryear.

Jim Henley:  The railroad brings a lot of employees, they need services, they need supplies so we develop a whole class of department stores and these department stores get so big and they get so, so large that they become palaces of consumption. They change the whole way-they develop K street.

But there were some things beyond Central Pacific’s control:  things like the infamous Sacramento floods. The shops were built above the flood plain so they remained relatively undamaged—it was the surrounding areas that would prove problematic.

Kyle Wyatt:  They didn’t fill all of the slough area they just filled in what they needed and so there are these bodies of water that would be smelly and putrid but also would accumulate lots of mosquitoes. At the time of course they didn’t understand the connection between mosquitoes and the transmission of malaria.

To fight malaria, eucalyptus trees were planted around the shops in the 1870’s.  At the time, they were thought to purify the air. Problem was the trees grew like weeds, disrupting the shops’ foundations.

Kyle Wyatt:  So in the 1890s they finally came thru and cut them down. One of the ways that we date pictures is by looking at the eucalyptus trees.

A picture with newly removed trees could have been taken when the railroad began experiencing large-scale labor problems.

Jim Henley:  The Pullman Strike is a very interesting factor in not only local history but certainly American history. It’s generally considered to be the first national strike.

The Pullman Company near Chicago had run into economic hard times and reduced workers’ salaries— but they didn’t reduce housing and food costs.  Railroad workers across the country made the collaborative decision to strike.

Jim Henley:  There’s enormous violence in Chicago and lots of people are killed there. It’s a really horrific experience but there’s spots of violence all across the country and probably the next most violent place is here in Sacramento.

Bill Burg:  Now because Sacramento was the nexus for railroading in California, if the workers in Sacramento said ‘things aren’t moving from this point’ they wouldn’t move anywhere in California. They literally brought railroad traffic to a halt for several weeks.

But the railroad brass had a plan to thwart striking workers.

Jim Henley:  They took a Pullman car and attached it to every train and especially the mail trains. And when the boycott refused to move a train that had a Pullman car on it they stopped the US mail. And essentially the president of the United States said no, no, no you can’t stop the mail so he called up federal troops.

Ultimately the strike was unsuccessful, but area workers did prove strength in numbers could affect positive change.

Jim Henley:  Because of the fact that all trains virtually going north south east or west go thru here, close to 1900 probably one third of all men, women and children living in Sacramento region are employed by the railroad and I emphasize children. Children are a major force in the railyards.

Low wages, menial jobs, tiny hands that fit into tiny places are all reasons the railroad had for hiring children— they’re also the reasons underage labor opponents had against.

Jim Henley:  People start to think a little bit and they begin to be concerned about child labor and there’s a serious movement in Sacramento to try and stop child labor by the 90’s.”

Soon, Sacramentans would have another battle on their hands—one that would have reaches far beyond the transcontinental rails.

From the time Theodore Judah began plotting the route of the transcontinental railroad to the beginning of the 20th century, we’re talking 40 some odd years and yet you can already see great periods of success for Sacramento— and periods of severe unrest.  This roller coaster ride would continue in local railroad history— even in the face of international strife.

Paul Hammond:  When WW1 hits, the railroad system as a whole is not ready to handle the demands of war so the government steps in partway into the war and actually nationalizes all of the railroads and begins to give oversight and coordination for how they will be run.  The Sacramento shops of course being the hub of the Southern Pacific during that time, everybody working there is working ultimately for the government during that time frame.

Many people call the time between the Great War and the Great Depression the golden age for the railroads.  Riding the rails aboard passenger cars was all the rage and again, the Sacramento shops were the pioneers of new trends.

Passenger traffic increased, the shops grew, railroads nationwide prospered. 

Then the other shoe dropped.

Jeff Asay:  Well what you had was the 20’s came to an end is the start of the depression, which was really a bad thing for the railroad industry as well as the country as a whole. All the passenger services started to contract, freight service kind of died out in all the small towns and it was just a real hard time for the railroads.

On the heels of the depression comes world war two and the railroads-- especially here in Sacramento—are essential for moving military troops and supplies.

Jeff Asay:  Then you get into World War 2, it starts, a lot of the skilled people go off to the armed forces and the railroads, Southern Pacific especially over here in the shops had a great shortage of people to do the work and they had no choice really. They tried to encourage women to come to work in the shops and they were very successful at that. They were working right alongside the men.

Bill Burg:  And while these were described as temporary expedience, only for the duration of the emergency, they did end up in the long run I think opening doors.

After the war, many women left their railroad jobs as the men returned home.  But fast forward 30 years, and doors did indeed begin opening for women in the male dominated railyards.

Mary Porterfield:  I think now if you really looked at the various railroad lines you would find that there are more and more women doing man, many of the jobs.”

Lee Ann Dickson:  In the old days when your relative passed away and he was an officer, the other officers came to the house and they came and they got all his things, his keys, his rule book and all that stuff and then they just brought jobs. I mean my mom was offered a job, I was offered a job and my brother was already a conductor, a brakeman so I took the job.”

Lee Ann Dickson:  This is a picture of my step grandpa (butt to) and he is building the Roseville yard in 1906 for the Southern Pacific.

Lee Ann Dickson is a fourth generation railroader on her mother’s side--third on her father’s side.  When her dad passed away, she carried on one legacy— while beginning another.

Lee Ann Dickson:  When I hired out in 1974 I was one of the first younger women to come onto the railroad industry and you had to face, there was a lot of challenges faced there with the men that really kind of didn’t want you there.  It’s not a gender thing so much it’s that you work on the railroad. You have to prove yourself.

Today of course, women have a strong presence in all aspects of the railroad industry.  In fact, the Roseville Railyard that Leeann’s grandfather helped build back in 1906 --is one of the many railyards she inspects for the Federal Railroad Administration today.

Lee Ann Dickson:  I’m the proudest of that I’ve encouraged other women to take up the transit industry and to work on the railroad and I think I’ve made working on the railroad for some other women easier than it was for me.
Besides seeing more women on the railroad, the industry has seen gone through several changes over the last few decades—the switch from steam to diesel, computerization, deregulation, and environmental overhauls to name a few.  The Sacramento shops remained the largest facility of Central Pacific—later the Southern Pacific—until their closing in 1999. But you can’t keep a padlock on history.  You are about to get a tour of these legendary shops that even today, are a tribute to Sacramento’s prominence in the railroad’s golden era.

Jack Gallagher:  I’m going to tell you that I’m surprised because every time I drive by this place on the freeway, I assume its empty. It’s far from empty.

Paul Hammond:  Well it’s far from empty in fact this building is the oldest building that remains here on the site. It dates from 1869.

Jack:  Tell me about the heyday of this entire era, the whole yard here.

Paul:  Well of course the yard, the rail yard, the Sacramento shops as they were known by a lot of different names were really, they grew to become 240 acres. Really huge, the largest single site industrial complex in all of the west.

Jack:  Is that right?”

Paul:  And then World War 2 hits and that’s really the heyday, the largest employment base here in these facilities.

Jack:  So how many people at that point worked in the 240 acres?

Paul:  Somewhere between 4 and 7 thousand people were based here. We’re still having fun getting the records straight.

Jack:  This was its own little city.

Paul:  This was known really as the city of shops.

Jack:  But during that high period during the Second World War, I could have run for Mayor of the Railyard.

Paul:  You could have.

Jack:  I could have won too.

But check out this beauty that’s housed in the old boiler shop.  It’s a 1950’s stainless steel passenger car.

Jack:  Now see look at this! I would travel by train if they looked like this still.

Paul:  Well they do if you travel by the right train.

Jack:  Yeah I’m not in that league.

Paul:  But probably this is a more useful thing to talk about in relationship to all the different things here that might have happened in these shops. This car probably didn’t travel here but these chairs might have been designed in these shops, certainly upholstery work was done here at these shops, metal work was done, one of the first prototype steel passenger cars which is what we’re in was built right here in these shops when America was moving from wood cars that had a tendency to fall apart in wrecks to steel ones that were more safe.  They even plated the silver for dining cars. They did pretty much everything that the railroad needed that a centralized shop could supply that could then get sent out all over their system.

One more little goody you’ll find near the shops? A custom-built 70-foot transfer table.

This complex piece of machinery is how they get trains in and out of the erecting shop.

Now the shops are certainly one place where you’ll find reminders of Sacramento’s fabled railroad history, but look around town and you’ll find lots more.

There’s the California State Railroad Museum.

AJ Stevens, the beloved shops boss has a monument in Caesar Chavez Park across from city hall. It was built not by the railroad, but by the railroad workers who admired and respected his contributions.

The mansion Leland Stanford lived in during his tenure as governor and president of the railroad is now a state run meeting place for visiting business and political dignitaries.

An interesting side note for Sacramento history buffs— EB Crocker was Charles Crocker’s older brother and attorney for Central Pacific in the 1860’s.  His extensive art collection was ultimately given to Sacramento as—you guessed it, the Crocker Art Gallery.

Theodore Judah has an elementary school named in his honor—it’s located in east Sacramento.

And there’s miles and miles of rail that by all accounts-- leads to a very promising future for the railroad in this region.

Jeff Asay:  Railroads were kind of in one of their dying out modes again and then you have deregulation and boy its been its been a success story ever since.

Perhaps the biggest success of deregulation locally has been the revitalization of the railroad’s freight business.

Jeff Asay:  We weren’t able to compete with the trucking industry as well because the rates were regulated and the rates were so high but after deregulation we could compete better, we could offer lower rates which we did to shippers and it helped the Sacramento area, it helped the port area.

Older diesels that were likely rebuilt right here in the Sacramento shops have been replaced with cleaner, greener locomotives.  And get this: the average freight train takes 3 to 400 trucks off the highway.

Jeff Asay:  Railroads are about 2 to 3 times more efficient on a fuel use basis than trucks for runs over 500 miles so we’re seeing a lot of environmental advantages to the railroads.

Jeff Asay:  And think of all the environmental advantages every time a passenger rides a train.  Trains are an integral part of this city and if the past is any indication, that trend is likely to keep on rolling.

Paul Hammond:  The railroad industry is not just vibrant and happening, the railroad industry is growing, it is hiring, it is expanding and it is going to become one of the things we look to to solve the problems of global warming in the 21st century.

Kyle Wyatt:  I think the railroad has demonstrated its flexibility and viability into the future. Its adapted and changed. We won’t repeat the past, but we will have a new future.”

The transcontinental railroad was one of the greatest feats of its time and in many respects, an overwhelming part of that historic transformation happened right here in Sacramento.  I’m Jack Gallagher. Thanks for watching. See you next time.